You Say Rowhani, I Say Rouhani: The Official Guide To Spelling The Next Iranian President’s Name

Eight years ago, after another surprising electoral outcome in Iran, I was asked to take on a sensitive mission in my capacity as a State Department policy advisor: coaching a senior U.S. Government official on the proper pronunciation of the name of the newly elected Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

It seems doubtful that these sorts of language lessons paid off, as Ahmadinejad’s name became the subject of much mangling, both inadvertent and deliberate, over the course of subsequent years by commentators and officials alike, particularly after broadcaster Katie Couric shared her own personal mnemonic for remembering how to say the name (“I’m a dinner jacket.”)

This time around, we appear to have been spared; newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s name requires no heavy-lifting even for the linguistically challenged. However, just when it seemed that one aspect of the Iran debate might avoid controversy and friction, the world has been confronted a new dilemma: spelling. Saturday’s announcement that Rouhani had unexpectedly taken the presidency in the first-round ballot sparked not just street celebrations around Iran, but also a proliferation of different styles for rendering the new president’s name in English, including Rouhani, Rowhani, Rohani, and Ruhani.

The main fly in the ointment appears to be the handling of the Persian letter و, or vav, which provides the initial vowel sound in the new Iranian president’s name. Determined to ensure that we are getting this right, I have gone on a (brief) hunt for the truth. Thanks to my academic training, my first instinct was to consult the sources that scholars rely upon for such determinations: the transliteration guides provided by the primary journals in the field, the International Journal of Middle East Studies and Iranian Studies, as well as instructions on romanizing Persian-language words provided by the Library of Congress. Well, that only muddled the ground further. IJMES and the Library of Congress appear to recommend the use of a macron, as in ‘Rūhani,’ while the wild and crazy folks at Iranian Studies aren’t quite so fussy about the macron and will accept either ‘Ruhani’ or ‘Rūhani.’

Here at Iran @ Saban, we thus far have been guided by what seemed like the most authoritative source in the pinch of quick turn-around web publishing, the president-elect’s official campaign website and Twitter feed, both of which utilize the ‘Rouhani’ spelling in the html address and other English-language aspects. (The website is solely in Persian, but Rouhani’s campaign has tweeted fairly evenly in both English and Persian.)

We’re in good company here, as others have apparently made a similar calculation; the Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers both use the ‘Rouhani’ spelling, among others. Still, others differ— the New York Times, which is one of the few American publications that has managed to retain a correspondent in Tehran through the turmoil of the past decade— as well as Fox News and the Associated Press have been using ‘Rowhani.’ In Iran, some publications, including Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, prefer the pared-down ‘Rohani’ on its English website.

Just to complicate things further, it would appear that some prospective authorities on this sort of an issue have decided not to decide. The esteemed British Broadcasting Corporation is having trouble sorting through the options, having tested all the options in stories published on its website over the course of recent weeks: ‘Rowhani’, ‘Rouhani’, and even the simplified ‘Rohani.’ (Since every Iranian and Iran-watcher knows, the BBC and the British control everything in Iran, this cafeteria approach to spelling is no doubt part of some nefarious British plot.) Meanwhile, the Voice of America, which maintains a widely-used online pronunciation guide for foreign leaders’ names complete with audio deploys multiple spellings on the same page for Rouhani/Rowhani/Ruhani’s name. And in the emergent Twitter debate on this issue, at least one party has nominated Roohani.

In sifting through the various options for our use here on Iran @ Saban, there are reasonable arguments for several of the alternatives— ‘Ruhani’ appears most consistent with the academic standards for transliteration, while an unscientific Google news search suggests that ‘Rowhani’ has seen exponentially wider usage in recent weeks. In the end, however, we’ll stick with ‘Rouhani’ for the moment, both for consistency and because apparently this is the spelling preferred by the man himself. It also happens to have been the choice of the White House and the State Department in the statements they issued on the election. A rare area of convergence between the Iranian and American governments seems worthy of wider encouragement.